By Catherine Sanders, Research Associate, Adara Development
In social science research, socioeconomic status (SES) is meant to represent well-being, or how well-off someone is compared to her neighbours. In development work, measuring SES helps us target needs, desires, and challenges in the field- not just how poor someone is, but in what ways they are poor. Sometimes poverty has a lot to do with money, but other times, it may have more to do with social support, or access to treatment in the event of an emergency. Paul Farmer also recently addressed why imbalances in SES are important in health development work.
Measuring SES in our project site in Humla, Nepal, is further complicated by the landscape. We have found that the mountains affect need by creating unique micro-environments. For instance, low-lying villages with lots of cropland may have higher food security and nutritional status, but due to the time intensity of the lifestyle, successful farmers often have less time to access information, healthcare, and technology than people who live at higher elevations where farming is less tenable, where they rely more heavily on trade and wage labour to feed their families. Not all kinds of wealth are created equal, depending on where you live.
Over the 30-odd years of Adara’s research team’s combined experience working in this region, we have noticed how people’s needs and desires have shifted in response to sweeping world changes and the pace of local social change and development.. When Kimber, our Research Director, conducted her dissertation fieldwork in the mid-90s in Humla District of Nepal, a relatively short list of resources was all that was required to understand wealth and poverty in a remote Himalayan district. If someone had a herd, land, and some key household goods, he was better off than his neighbours. Very few people had reliable access to healthcare, so most were ‘poor’ when it came to biomedical healthcare.
By the time I conducted my own dissertation research in the district in 2009, the 21st century had brought an influx of wage labour opportunities and NGO projects to the villagers of Humla District. Most families now earned cash by selling herbs or buying and re-selling cheap Chinese goods. Most homes had smokeless stoves. Healthcare access in the district was still incredibly difficult, but some families now had enough cash to afford a plane flight to high-quality emergency services in urban centres in Nepal. Most still couldn’t, and cash resources were still less highly prized than, for example, labour resources.
ADDRESSING SES IN A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD
In the case of mountainous Nepal, changing SES has shown us that development is having a positive impact. Villagers these days tend to list things like “specialised doctors” or “secondary schooling” as their highest priority needs, when they used to mention more basic needs like “a doctor”, “a school”, or even “food and clothing”. As Adarians we are part of that change and can be proud, but we also need to change our work as we notice shifts in resources and needs.
The information we have gathered over 20 plus years acts like a guide to the changes we see in Nepal, and currently we are writing a longer piece on better, quicker SES measures for this region, shaped by our experiences there. Despite the positive impacts, as opportunities change for people in Nepal and across our fieldsites, new challenges will arise even as other hardships persist. So we continue to develop ways of measuring SES that are more meaningful and better reflect the needs and desires of the people we work with, for better programmes now and in the future.